The Museum of Modern Art has unveiled an ambitious new program that celebrates the director as the primary force behind the collaborative creation of film. “An Auteurist History of Film”, a two-year series of films drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection that will explore “the dawn of the cinematic art form.” Intended to serve as “both an exploration of the richness of the Museum’s collection” and as a basic introduction to “the development of cinema as a predominant art form of the 20th century,” the series will begin September 9.
The first three months of the series will explore pre-cinema; the earliest films seen in Europe and America, by the Edison Company and the Lumiere Brothers; pre-D.W. Griffith directors and the early efforts of Griffith at New York’s Biograph Studio; the innovations by Scandinavian filmmakers; and Griffith’s departure from Biograph. Over the course of the two-year series, explicatory and supplementary information will be available on MoMA’s website. The series is organized by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.
“The auteurist approach to film, articulated by the critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s and brought to America by film writer and critic Andrew Sarris, contends that, despite the collaborative nature of the medium, the director is the primary force behind the creation of a film,” MoMA describes about the approach to the series in a statement. “In the present context, this ‘theory’ is intended as a useful tool, not to be applied too rigidly or in a doctrinaire manner. Rather than creating a single, formal museum canon, An Auteurist History of Film will provide filmgoers with a rare opportunity to follow the course of filmmaking from its origins to the present day by examining the role of the director.”
-For a complete list of screenings up to the end of November, with descriptions provided by MoMA, please continue to the following pages-
In one sense, film and photography differ from older arts like painting and sculpture in that we can determine finite dates for production and exhibition of specific works. However, it is not quite that simple. As these two documentaries show, there was an evolutionary process in the development of the movies.
Origins of the Motion Picture. 1956. Produced by the United States Naval Photographic Center. USA. 21 min.
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. 1975. USA. Directed by Thom Anderson. 60 min.
Actualities and Glimmerings of More
The earliest films that audiences saw both here and abroad exuded the exotic novelty of a penny arcade attraction. Even by the turn of the 20th century, however, filmmakers were beginning to play with the possibilities of the medium as the novelty wore off, and audiences clamored for more ambitious (dare we call it “artistic?”) fare.
Films of the 1890’s. 1894-1899. USA. Produced (mostly) by the Edison Company. 18 min.
Lumiere Program I. 1895-1896. France. Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumiere. 21 min.
Lumiere Program II. 1895-1898. France. Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumiere. 20 min.
The Classic American Mutoscope. 1897-1907. USA. Produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. 10 min.
Pioneer Films by Max Skladanowsky. 1895-1896. Germany. Directed by Skladanowsky. 8 min.
The Beginnings of British Film. 1901-1911. Great Britain. 29 min.
Entire program approx. 106 min.
Edwin S. Porter
Porter (1869-1941) was the first director of note to emerge on this side of the Atlantic. Charles Musser’s documentary, narrated by Blanche Sweet, one of D.W. Griffith’s earliest and greatest stars, tells Porter’s story in a charming and touching manner.
Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter. 1982. USA. Directed by Charles Musser. 60 min.
Edwin S. Porter: Program I. 1903-1908. USA. Directed by Porter. 33 min. The program includes The Life of an American Fireman, The Gay Shoe Clerk, The Great Train Robbery, The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, and Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest (with D. W. Griffith).
Fighting the Flames, Dreamland, Coney Island. 1904. USA. Directed by Porter. 6 min.
Hippodrome Races, Dreamland, Coney Island. 1905. USA. Directed by Porter, 4 min.
Entire program runs approx. 103 min. Before the Nickelodeon is a sound film; other titles are silent without musical accompaniment.
Lesser Known Pioneers of Cinema
September 30-October 2
While piecing together the history of this early period is difficult, and the record will always be incomplete, it is worth noting other figures. This sampler includes competing passion plays, Griffith’s rival at Vitagraph, and his predecessor at Biograph.
La Vie et la passion de Jesus. 1902. France. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet. 30 min.
La Vie du Christ. 1906. France. Directed by Alice Guy Blache. 35 min.
The Automobile Thieves (incomplete). 1906. USA. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. 10 min.
Francesca di Rimini. 1908. USA. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. 10 min.
At the Crossroads of Life. 1908. USA. Directed by Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. With D.W. Griffith. 10 min
Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker. 1908. USA. Directed by Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. Written by D. W. Griffith. Photographed by G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. 15 min. Entire program runs approx. 110 min. Silent films; musical accompaniment by Ben Model.
George Melies and His Rivals
While the development of film narrative at the Biograph, Edison, and smaller studios in the United States took a mostly naturalistic turn, the predominant filmmaker in France, Georges Melies (1861-1938), leaned toward the fantastical in the tradition of Jules Verne, who survived until 1905, mid-career of his disciple. Melies, entrepreneur of the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris, essentially transferred his successful stage conjurations and visual sorcery to cinema in the wake of the Lumiere Brothers invention. His films, marked by the inspired artificiality of his sets and costumes, became increasingly complex and ambitious. The superficiality of these “trick films,” however, proved ultimately to be a dead end, and Melies retired in 1913. Audience tastes were now running toward longer, more reality-based films. This program provides a sampling of Melies films and those of some of his imitators.
La Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). 1902. France. Directed by Melies. 13 min.
Barbe-Bleue. 1901. France. Directed by Melies. 10 min.
Les sept chateaux du diable (Seven Castles of the Devil). 1902. France. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca. 12 min.
Le Voyage a travers l’impossible (Impossible Voyage). 1904. France. Directed by Melies. 17 min.
La Caverne Infernal. 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 4 min.
Creations renversantes (Stunning Creation). 1905 France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 2 min.
La Garde Fantome (Phantom Guard). 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 3 min.
La Peine du talon (Tit For Tat). 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 4 min.
Robert Macaire et Bertrand (Foxy Hoboes). 1906. France. Directed by Melies. 10 min.
Le Tunnel sous la Manche (The Nightmare of the Submarine Tunnel). 1907. France. Directed by Melies. 14 min.
Excursion dans la lune. 1908. France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon and Ferdinand Zecca. 10 min.
All films silent. Program runs approx. 99 min.
D.W. Griffith at Biograph
Between the summers of 1908 and 1913, David Wark Griffith (1874-1948), mediocre actor and failed writer, transformed the medium of film more drastically than any known person has done with an art form in human history. Working at the Biograph Studio on East 14th Street and on winter sojourns to California, Griffith transcended the primitive language and visual grammar of his predecessors, distilling a mature expressiveness capable of wielding great emotional power over his audience. Together with his cinematographic wizard, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, Griffith developed a technical facility to complement and replicate the stunning imagery flowing from his imagination. Steeped in Shakespeare and Dickens, the director’s narrative instinct enabled him to tell stories in the nascent medium with great cogency and immediacy. He gradually moved away from his roots in the Victorian stage to produce a vitally subtle acting style in his performers that lent films a new authenticity and feeling. This small selection (mostly in newly-restored prints), drawn from the 400 or so short films which he made at Biograph and which have been preserved by the museum, gives a few hints of his accomplishment during this period. In later weeks, we will look at a number of his more sophisticated works.
The Country Doctor. 1909. With Frank Powell, Florence Lawrence, Kate Bruce, Mary Pickford. 15 min.
A Corner in Wheat. 1909. With Frank Powell, Linda Arvidson, Henry B. Walthall, Mack Sennett. 15 min.
The Honor of His Family. 1910. With Henry B. Walthall, Verner Charges, Kate Bruce, Linda Arvidson. 16 min.
The Lonedale Operator. 1911. With Blanche Sweet, George O. Nicholls, Francis J. Grandon, Wilfred Lucas. 16 min.
The Painted Lady. 1912. With Blanche Sweet, Madge Kirby, Charles Hill Mailes, Harry Carey, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian and Dorothy Gish. 15 min.
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch. 1913. With Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall. 32 min.
Entire program runs approx. 108 min. Silent films.
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The Scandinavian Connection
Throughout film history the northern rim of Europe has produced many artists of note, their films often reflecting the austerity of the societies from whence they sprung. Although the Danish Urban Gad (1879-1947) cannot be considered a major director, he discovered (and later married) Asta Nielsen, whom my colleague, Jytte Jensen, has pointed out, was the first internationally-famous film star. Their first collaboration (like most of their nearly three dozen films together) was Afgrunden (The Abyss), which displays an eroticism far-removed from that of Nielsen’s American rivals. Gad and she would go on to make a provocative cross-dressing Hamlet in 1920. If Nielsen was the first great actress, the Swedish Victor Sjostrom (1879-1960) was arguably the first great director. Like Griffith, a theater veteran, Sjostrom and his friend Mauritz Stiller, a Finnish Jew, turned the Swedish company, Svenska Bio, into one of the most important film companies in the world. Sjostrom’s Ingeborg Holm displayed a mature psychological intensity and complexity not previously seen in the cinema.
Afgrunden (The Abyss). 1910. Germany. Directed by Urban Gad. With Asta Nielsen. 30 min. Silent film with Danish intertitles (a synopsis will be provided on line).
Ingeborg Holm. 1913. Sweden. Directed and written by Victor Sjostrom, based on a play be Nils Krok. With Hilda Borgstrom, Aron Lindgren. 65 min. Silent film with Swedish intertitles (a synopsis will be provided on line).
Entire program approx. 95 min. Silent films.
Two Danish Innovators
Stellan Rye (1880-1914), a Dane killed fighting for the Kaiser in the First World War, was a tragic loss to the movies. Director of sixteen films in the two years before his death, Rye’s Der Student von Prag was a clear forerunner of the German Expressionist films that dominated European production in the period between the wars. Although shot in naturalistic locations in Prague, Rye’s imaginative facility with the camera evoked the Faust legend, E.T.A. Hoffman, and Poe. He was greatly abetted in this by his star, Paul Wegener (later director of three films based on the Golem legend and several Nazi propaganda films), and cinematographer Guido Seeber (who later photographed Pabst’s Joyless Street and Secrets of a Soul). Benjamin Christensen (1879-1959) began his career with The Mysterious X, a spy drama displaying a sophisticated and stunningly original visual style that would heavily influence the great Expressionist directors of the 1920’s. He was to go on to make Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages) before a brief sojourn in Hollywood.
Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague). 1913. Germany. Directed by Stellan Rye. With Paul Wegener, Fritz Weidemann, John Gottowt, Lida Salmonova. 58 min.
Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (The Mysterious X). 1914. Denmark. Directed by Benjamin Christensen. With Christensen, Karen Sandberg, Otto Reinwald. 60 min. Silent film without intertitles (a synopsis will be provided on line).
Entire program approx. 118 min. Silent films.
Griffith Leaves Biograph
Chafing under the constraints of having to make films of short duration and aware that European filmmakers were making increasingly ambitious multi-reel epics, D. W. Griffith decided to move on. His parting shot was Judith of Bethulia, more than twice the length of any of his previous films. This story based in the Apocrypha was intended to compete with Italian “sword and sandal” spectacles that were being imported into the American market. Largely through the performances of stars, Blanche Sweet and Henry B. Walthall, Griffith’s film adds a human element to his sprawling canvas. Similarly, the same two actors enrich The Avenging Conscience, the director’s homage to one of his literary heroes, Edgar Allan Poe. The film moves Griffith (then forty) in the direction of being consciously experimental and “arty,” replete with camera and lighting tricks and replication of famous paintings. Although these would remain in his repertoire, his subsequent and most successful work was marked by a return to his naturalistic roots.
Judith of Bethulia. 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish. Approx. 55 min.
The Avenging Conscience. 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Spottiswoode Aiken, George Siegmann. Approx. 65 min.
All films silent with English intertitles. Program approx. 120 min.
Cabiria. 1914. Italy. Directed by Giovanni Pastrone. Photographed by Segundo de Chomon. With Marcellina Bianco, Almirante Manzini, Bartolomeo Pagano (Maciste). This massive depiction of Rome and Carthage fighting the Second Punic War marked a highpoint in Italian cinema, unrivalled until the advent of Neorealism after World War II. Pastrone (1883-1959) lacked Griffith’s subtlety with actors, but the lavishness of his production clearly inspired the American to greater heights. Approx. 120 min. Silent film with English intertitles.
The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation. 1915. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Based on The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. With Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Robert Harron. This is the film that, more than other, changed the course of cinema history. By consolidating all that he (and others) had achieved, and deeply moved by the Civil War mythology he had imbibed growing up in rural Kentucky, Griffith fashioned an epic unprecedented in scope and emotional intensity. Since the mythology he accepted was deeply racist (however much he modulated Dixon’s source material), the film had and still has a profoundly disturbing effect on American political and social history. Although the film’s content is indefensible, it remains the pachyderm in the movie palace, and it is hard to think of any other work which had such an impact on an art form or a society. Approx. 130 min. Silent film with English intertitles.
Intolerance. 1916. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper. Whether sincerely or not, Griffith claimed that this film was a response to what he considered the outrageous attempts to censor The Birth of a Nation. Bordering on madness, Griffith interwove four disparate tales of “intolerance” through the ages: the fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in France, and a modern tale of injustice in America. The first and last of these were later rereleased as individual films (The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law) in an effort to recoup some of the financial losses caused by the refusal of audiences to respond to Griffith’s filmic fugue. The reconstruction of Babylon, done by carpentry rather than computers, is still astonishing, and the performance by Mae Marsh in the modern stories is glorious. Griffith’s editing became the model for the Soviet cinema of Sergei Eisenstein and his colleagues, and Intolerance remains a monument to directors who have tried to push the medium beyond “acceptable” limits (Stroheim, Gance, Sternberg, Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick). Approx 130 min. Silent film with English intertitles.